National forest turns 100

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Go today to the closest bit of national forest you can find.

You don't have to ski or hike far into its boundaries -- maybe just take a few steps. Breathe in the cold air, stare up at the trees surrounding you, and think of all that the forest holds but you cannot see -- the fox lurking, the wildflowers waiting to bloom, saplings ready to grow, the bird searching out food, the bear awaiting spring.

And then, make a toast of sorts and celebrate, for the Routt National Forest has turned 100 years old.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt made a proclamation establishing the Park Range Forest Reserve, which was renamed the Routt National Forest in 1908. According to historical information provided by the Hahn's Peak/ Bears Ears Ranger District, he knew the area personally from hunting trips to California Park in the 1890s.

The Routt National Forest went through several series of boundary changes during the years, eventually growing to the 1.125 million Northwest Colorado acres it is today.

"In life in general, we've got to stop and celebrate every once in a while," said Kim Vogel, district ranger for the Hahn's Peak/Bears Ears District of the Routt National Forest.

The Routt National Forest shares its birthday with the U.S. Forest Service, which was created by the transfer of forest reserves from the General Land Office in the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture. That means the Routt National Forest's history is important as it relates to the local community as well as to national concepts such as westward expansion and the Forest Service's contributions to the nation, Vogel said.

"That's the stuff we ought to be celebrating," she said.

Comparing the forest of today to that of 100 years ago shows more similarities than differences, Vogel said.

"If you look at the headlines back at the turn of the century, when the agency was being established, a lot of those same controversies are still taking place," she said. The cost of timber, timber sales and grazing rights, for example, are as important today as they were at the turn of the last century.

The main difference now, Vogel said, relates to population growth and user demands that are growing and conflicting.

"Back then, if you had somebody who was wanting some timber, most likely they were going to be the only ones wanting it. You didn't have five entities wanting the same thing," Vogel said.

That's one of the biggest changes noticed by John Sundberg, who worked for the Routt National Forest from 1953 to 1995 -- nearly half of the forest's 100 years.

When Sundberg began working, summers were spent outside in the forest, and winters were spent indoors doing office work.

During those summers outside, a typical week in the forest might mean seeing a sheepherder or cowboy, but that was about it.

"It's changing," he said. "There are a lot of people around."

Sundberg was born and raised in Hayden, and he started working for the Forest Service as a seasonal worker. He returned as a permanent worker after serving in the Army for two years.

In the 1960s, Sundberg and a couple of other employees would travel by vehicle, horseback or foot into the forest when spring came, and stay there through summer for 10-day shifts, sleeping in tents or cabins and returning to town for a long weekend.

At that time, the Forest Service had one telephone, with a line going from California Park to Clark. If spring came, and the phone did not work, Sundberg and others would walk the phone line to find the break and fix it.

Each district had one radio, which weighed about 35 pounds and required an antenna hung in the tree -- a setup that was not very portable, Sundberg said.

"You were pretty much on your own," Sundberg said about the work. "You didn't have the convenience of just calling somebody up when you wanted to relay a message."

Sundberg worked mostly with timber sales, helping to mark and measure timber so the Forest Service would know how much to charge.

The range wars and timber thefts common at the turn of the 20th century had ceased by the 1920s, Sundberg said, so his job did not involve the danger that some of the earlier Forest Service workers faced.

John Ayer, who worked for the Routt National Forest from 1977 to 2001, mostly as the forest's administrative officer, said that although the Forest Service's roots in natural resources have not changed, difficulties with managing those resources have changed.

When he came to the Routt National Forest, timber cutting was the top controversy, but that gradually has given way to recreational uses.

In Routt County, especially Steamboat Springs, where tourism is a major industry, the forest is of great importance. That makes balancing the varied uses even more important, he said.

"The mission is very much alive," Ayer said. "It's probably more of a challenge then ever before, but the mission's certainly vital and important."

Residents of many communities in Routt County can look out their windows and glimpse at national forest and other public lands, said Diann Ritschard, spokeswoman for the Routt National Forest.

It plays important roles throughout the county, she said.

"So I'm really excited that we're not just standing here alone, celebrating the birthday of the Routt National Forest," she said.

Various local organizations are helping commemorate the forest's centennial, she said, and there will be numerous opportunities to learn about and celebrate the forest's history.

In all of the centennial celebrations, Vogel said it's important not only to look at the past, but also to look toward the future.

Visitors often share stories about how they skied in the forest with their fathers, and how their fathers skied it with their fathers, constantly reminding Forest Service officials that the forest has been a public source of enjoyment for generations.

"But we're also always reminded that while we're managing something that's been around for a long time, we're managing it for the future, and we're not managing it for the past," Vogel said.

Although the past provides good lessons, she said, "where we're headed is completely different from where we've been."

-- To reach Susan Cunningham, call 871-4203 or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com

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